TxDOT seeks to lease public right-of-way for commercial purposes

Link to article here.

TxDOT's plan to lease out the public's right-of-way for a for-profit commercial purpose tramples on private property rights. When someone's land is forcibly taken through eminent domain for a 'public use,' it should NEVER be handed over to a another private party for private gain. The original landowners should be afforded the right to develop their property alongside the roadway, not have government take it and hand it over to the special few in a revenue sharing scheme with the State of Texas.

This plan is almost identical to the Trans Texas Corridor (TTC) that Texans abhor. One of the primary reasons Texans opposed the TTC was precisely because of the land grab that would have forcibly taken their land through eminent domain and handed their property to another private party in a government-sanctioned monopoly. The State has no business selling gas, putting up hotels, or restaurants. That's the private sector's job. TURF will be active in defeating this incarnation of the TTC in the next legislative session.

TxDOT considers toll plaza with food, gas in Texas 130 median

By Ben Wear


Published: 10:12 p.m. Friday, July 13, 2012

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The Texas Department of Transportation is considering development of an unusually wide median area on the Texas 130 toll road near Texas 71 east of Austin, potentially leasing the land to investors to build and operate a gas station, store or restaurant that drivers could use without leaving the tollway.

Although such highway plazas are common in other states and overseas, it would be a first for Texas.

Though the idea is still far from reality, it has drawn critics. Anti-toll-road activist Terri Hall said such an initiative undermines free enterprise and would use once-private land, possibly obtained through eminent domain laws, to enrich the state.

TxDOT in June published a "request for information," asking interested companies to respond by July 25 with the outlines of what they might install and how such a lease with the state could be structured. An agency spokesman on Friday emphasized the preliminary nature of the initiative. A second, formal bidding process would have to occur before TxDOT reaches a deal.

"This is exploratory," TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross told the American-Statesman. "What they're looking to do is to find a way to increase the revenue and enhance the customer service along the tollway."

Cross said the agency is not considering a similar arrangement at any other place along Texas 130 or the other three Central Texas tollways owned by the agency. TxDOT, in its agreement with a private consortium to extend Texas 130 another 41 miles to Seguin, retained exclusive rights for this sort of development. That section of road should open this fall, officials said Friday.

State law allows TxDOT to lease land on its tollways for only a handful of uses: gas stations, garages, stores, hotels, restaurants, railroad tracks, utilities and telecommunications facilities and equipment.

The wide median was a staging area and concrete plant for the tollway's construction before that section's 2007 opening. Cross said it was envisioned as a spot for a possible toll plaza since construction of the road. The area is 2,875 feet long and 450 feet wide, or about 30 acres, the TxDOT document indicates.

The TxDOT solicitation includes a schematic, labeled "for illustrative purposes only," of what might end up in the median, including car and truck parking areas and a 19,000-square-foot convenience store and restaurant.

The document also touts the growing traffic potential of Texas 130, which six years after opening still has light traffic on its four lanes. The document includes maps showing 2010 daily average traffic along various points of the road, including about 20,200 cars and trucks a day at the potential development site. By 2035, TxDOT expects that traffic there will have more than tripled to about 77,500 vehicles a day, according to the solicitation.

About 215,000 vehicles a day pass through Austin on Interstate 35, according to a 2010 count.

The document points out that there are no similar facilities within four miles.

The Texas 130 corridor, with some exceptions near Pflugerville and the coming Circuit of the Americas racetrack, has been slow to develop. But David Roche, the managing principal and a retail specialist with Endeavor Real Estate Group, said he could see small-scale commercial development being successful at the location.

"Yeah, I think it would, providing you have some signage saying it's coming," Roche said. "I don't see a hotel there though. And if they ground-lease, they could stagger the payments so they're much smaller now and increase as the volume of traffic increases."

Hall, the activist who is from Comal County, characterized the possible facility as an improper intrusion of government into private enterprise. Any developers who might open shop in the median, she said, would have a competitive advantage over restaurateurs or service station operators who might hope to operate similar facilities on private land alongside Texas 130.

"Who's going to have that be financially viable when TxDOT has a captive audience, a monopoly inside the tollway?" Hall said. "TxDOT condemned that land. It was supposed to be in the public use for a road. But now TxDOT is getting in the development business, and is picking winners and losers.

"It may be the norm other places, but we see it for what it is. It's a threat to property rights on its face."

Chris Newton, president of the Texas Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said his organization has generally opposed commercializing rest areas along highways. "We're obviously concerned whenever state government begins taking property used for a public purpose and considers how it could be used for a private purpose."

Cross, asked for a reaction to Hall's criticism, sent an email quoting a passage from the request for information that did not directly address the government-
private sector balance.

"The department is dedicated to providing a safe and efficient system of tolled highways," Cross wrote, "while ensuring the highest possible level of service and efficiency to its customers."

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